Photos: Roark Johnson
Naperville, Ill. city councilman Paul Hinterlong looks out into his captive audience while contemplating the student’s question: What is the most important part of your job?
“Listening to the people I serve,” he declares.
It’s a good, simple and appropriate answer for his audience: five students with special needs from River Woods Elementary School. As part of the class’ Community Program, they are visiting Naperville City Hall to explore the concept of freedom. They had worked hard preparing their questions, which had been written out by their teachers, Tristin Vrchota and Christina Bentel. The kids, most of whom are nonverbal, use a special tool called a PECS, which gives a verbal response for them when they pick the appropriate image.
“I love being able to share with these kids some of the things we do to make our community work,” says Hinterlong, after posing for pictures with the children. “Every time we can get kids out of the classroom to learn something real and concrete about their world, it gives them something they can carry with them the rest of their lives.”
That is precisely the point of River Woods’ innovative community-based program, where the students with special needs are taken on field trips that introduce, educate and familiarize them with the world outside their homes and classrooms.
River Woods is a large elementary school, with a student population of 540 kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, located in the Naperville Community Unit School District 203. The district’s 118 buses, all of which are IC Bus products, provide transportation for 14,000 students daily in the Chicago suburb. Of these buses, a handful have been uniquely equipped to safely transport the district’s students with special needs.
Gina Baumgartner, a first-year principal at River Woods, is understandably proud of the special education program at her school. Bentel, who has spent four years in special education at River Woods and nine in the school district, has seen the program’s benefits firsthand. “The focus of our curriculum is to help make the students productive members of society,” she says. “We practice those skills in the classroom and generalize them out in the community.”
After visiting City Hall, the students troop back out to a waiting IC Bus and the warm, welcoming smile of Irma Coleman. For many of the students, she is the only bus driver they have ever known.
Coleman may be one of the more well-coiffed bus drivers in America. Naturally equipped with a gently teasing manner and ready laugh, she spent 18 years as a hairdresser before a friend suggested she try driving a bus. “I thought no, I will never drive a big bus. But I was always a good driver, so here I am after 10 years, driving a bus.”
As the students make their way up the stairs into the bus, Coleman greets each student by name, encouraging them if they hesitate or falter. “I chose special-needs kids because I have a special fondness for them,” she says later. “It humbles you. Special-needs kids are nicer to each other [and] they can be a lot of fun. They can change the people they meet out in the community. They >attract people in a positive way.”
Safe and Sound
One student in a wheelchair moves to a familiar spot at the side of the distinctive, school-bus-yellow, 23-passenger CE Series bus, waiting to be loaded. “Naperville CUSD” is prominently painted in black letters across the side. Coleman deftly unlatches the safety catch and lowers the automated lift, which then raises the student up into the bus. It is a quick and easy operation that takes less than a minute. With the February temperatures yet to break into double digits, every second counts.
Coleman says that the features of her IC Bus are what make these outings possible. In addition to the lift, there is a cleared area that can accommodate wheelchairs between the driver’s seat and the rows of individual seats. Hefty ring bolts are fastened to the floor to secure the wheelchairs. The seats have safety harnesses, for students who need extra security when riding on the bus. The benches also contain smaller seats that can be folded down for the younger children who go out with their peers during the community program. “It’s the perfect bus for me and the kids,” Coleman says fondly.
Bentel is amazed at the ease with which Coleman works with the students. “Irma is wonderful. She gets to know every child. She’s not intimidated by any of their needs,” Bentel says. “By communicating with them, and then collaborating with us, she communicates to the kids that they are welcome on the bus. She’s letting them know they are in a safe place to accomplish their goals.”
In fact, both special education teachers on the community outing, Bentel and Vrchota, say that whatever the community program might have in store for the students—whether a trip to a department store, a restaurant, an art museum or City Hall—the bus is a refuge on days that can be long and challenging. “They feel safe and secure with the bus,” says Bentel.
Back at school, the students are visibly excited about getting back into the classroom. With infinite patience, Coleman stands at the foot of the stairs to help when needed. She loves the community outings and feels that she has received gifts in equal measure from her riders.
Settling back in her driver’s seat, she contemplates the skills and traits that make her a trustworthy driver of students with special needs. “Compassion. You know the kid in school who got bullied? That’s the kid I always made friends with,” she recalls. “You got to love kids and you have to have patience. You just got to get past what you physically see there. They may not be able to speak to you, but they’re just normal kids. [They’re] growing up just like anyone else.”